Monday, September 29, 2008

Deconstructing the Undecided

Undecided voters move in mysterious ways.

They are not a monolithic group, cannot be placed into a neat, predictable category, and have been key in pushing one or another candidate over the 50% mark in most recent presidential elections.

They can, however, be divided broadly into three groups, which may help us better understand what goes on in their oscillating minds.

Group 1 is made up of the people who are not particularly interested in politics or current events. They're not cable news watchers, newspaper-readers, don't understand much about the intricacies of the economy, and most likely belong to the 70% of Americans who don't have passports. This is the group that most of my friends belong to, who constantly switched the channel to shows like American Idol or Survivor during the primary election season - and considering how disheartening and petty politics can get sometimes, I was often tempted to join them.

However, this year, the election has been more entertaining and substantive than most reality shows.

Think about it: you start off with ten candidates on one side and eight on the other. These include, among others, a black man, a woman, a Latino, a senior citizen who was a former POW, a Mormon, a pro-choice 9/11 Republican mayor, a TV actor, and a pastor. Throw in race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and age, mix it all up, and then bring in the public to vote.

Every few weeks, someone gets voted off, with the factors determining the outcome ranging from lipstick and pigs to a potentially global economic meltdown. It's unpredictable, edgy, 24-7, and even the commercials (read: attack ads) play into the outcome.

However, as we near the season finale, those in Group 1 - who I would guess make up the largest population among the undecided demographic - are finding that the election has moved beyond its undeniable entertainment value and caught up with their personal lives, which are now being pummeled directly by financial losses, increasing mortgages, astronomical gas prices, and potential layoffs. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, having claimed thousands of American lives, while the weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden - the initially touted respective targets of these wars - remain as elusive as ever.

Group 2, on the other hand, comprises the genuine independents. This group is much smaller, and consists of voters who are well-informed and well-read on the issues. They are reasonable, thinking individuals who, like anyone blessed with the faculty of genuinely independent thought, cannot align themselves completely with either party. They may be fiscally conservative and socially liberal at the same time, or vice versa. They are not easily swayed by campaign-constructed talking points or media-sponsored sideshows. They may be looking at third party candidates, or if forced to choose between the two major parties, at who they feel represents the lesser of the two "evils".

Group 3 should really be called the "pseudo-undecided". These are the "non-pro-this-but-definitely-anti-that" voters: they're the ones that will say, for instance, "Yes, I am voting this year, I don't know who I'm voting for, but it's definitely not Obama." Many of them identify themselves as independents in polls and place themselves in the undecided column when they probably shouldn't - they constitute a whole different component of the margin of error.

For all three groups, though, it has now become virtually impossible not to pay attention, because more than ever in recent history, the result of this election will ultimately play a significant role in the livelihood of almost all voters and their families.

Can we predict which way they'll swing?

Well, we'll need to break it down first. Group 3 is not a truly undecided group, so they can be ignored.

However, Groups 1 and 2 share a common denominator:

If things are going badly, they're likely to vote against the status quo.

And if things are going well, they can go either way or not vote at all.

This year, things are clearly not going well, and it's down to the final two contestants. The running mates have been chosen, coloring the mix, with everything from the Tina Fey factor to a probable $700 billion dollar economic bailout playing significant roles.

Watching Obama and McCain go at it for the first time last week, I was surprised when the pundits and political analysts said that there was "nothing new" brought up in the debate. For most of the undecideds who had just tuned into the election - specially those in Group 1 - everything was new.

The political junkie analyst who has been following the campaign for almost two years now may find it hard to believe that there are many recently tuned in voters who have never heard of General Petraeus - but I watched the debate with a few of them, and they are all registered to vote.

It shouldn't have been surprising that Obama gained more ground afterwards. For all of the knowledge and expertise that McCain demonstrated on foreign policy, Obama still managed to sound more confident, more optimistic, and connect better with swing voters by tying everything to the economy - from how the $10 billion a month spent in Iraq could be spent on health care, education, and infrastructure at home, to how the $700 billion a year spent on foreign oil could be invested in clean and renewable energy resource development, creating more jobs and providing wallet relief for drivers right here in the United States.

This election has now become personal enough and serious enough to transcend race, gender, age, lipstick on pigs, and the Couric-Palin sideshow. Judging from the significant leads that Obama has picked up in key swing state polls this week, it's more than safe to say that the undecideds are now tuned in - and listening.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Patriarchy's New Poster Woman

Phyllis Schlafly was probably the most prominent poster woman for patriarchal conservatives in the 1970s - a conservative anti-feminist activist who, despite being a successful lawyer, newsletter editor and all-round career woman, maintained avidly that women should be full-time wives and mothers. She was perceived by many progressive women and men alike as a woman who wanted to strip other women of all of the opportunities and benefits that she had availed and enjoyed for herself.

Now we have Sarah Palin, who John McCain picked as his vice presidential running mate in a brilliant political move that energized and consolidated his party's base in a way that he was unable to until the Republican convention early this month.

One goal of the move was to pull disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters still reeling from the Democratic primaries into McCain's fold. Interestingly, though, the surge in support for the McCain-Palin ticket came more from men than women, by nine percentage points.

Palin ran primarily on the basis of being a 'values' candidate, a hockey mom and the mother of five children - the youngest of which has Down Syndrome - to the extent that a significant portion of her convention speech revolved around her family. She put her family out there, made them the nucleus of her candidacy, and then somehow placed them off limits, allowing them immunity from any kind of criticism or scrutiny.

She did not do any interviews or answer any questions from the press, and anyone who criticized her was charged with being sexist or condescending, including Charlie Gibson, who has conducted her first and only major network interview so far.

Instead of picking legitimately qualified conservative women like Senior Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas, McCain chose to run with Sarah Palin - or Phyllis Schlafly Version 2.0.

For female Clinton supporters still wondering about whether they should vote for McCain-Palin because there is now a woman on the ticket (that would be about 17% of Hillary Clinton supporters), consider the following:

Palin is running with John McCain, the candidate who opposed the Fair Pay Act of 2007, which deals with equal pay for equal work for women. He didn't show up for the vote. The bill was defeated in 2008 by the Republicans who cited high lawsuit potential as their rationale for turning it down. Even more startling were McCain's comments on the issue:

"They need the education and training, particularly since more and more women are heads of their households, as much or more than anybody else..."

McCain felt - think about this for a minute - that women need more education and training to be able to claim equal pay for equal work.

Second, John McCain voted - twice - against the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed in 1994 under Bill Clinton. Under the VAWA, states receive critical funding for their their sexual assault and domestic violence prevention and treatment programs. The act requires that states that receive funding be banned from charging rape victims for their own rape kits for evidence collection. Palin's home state of Alaska adhered to this in 2000, under Tony Knowles, who was governor at the time.

But before that, as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska in the 1990s, Sarah Palin actually cut funding for sexual assault victims, requiring them to pay for their own rape kits - which can cost up to $1500 - either themselves or through their insurance companies.

The Fair Pay Act was co-sponsored by Barack Obama, as was the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The VAWA was authored by none other than Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden, called a champion for women by the National Organization for Women (NOW). His selection as Obama's running mate triggered NOW to endorse the Democratic ticket, instead of the Republican ticket with Palin on it.

It is wholly convenient for McCain to have a poster woman like Sarah Palin to hide behind, giving his pro-women facade legitimacy, and it has worked so far.

Yes, families should be off limits, but a candidate's policy decisions should not. Palin's teenage daughter's unwed pregnancy should not be a press target, but her stringent support of abstinence-only sex education, which leads to increased unwanted teenage pregnancies, should.

Hopefully, in Sarah Palin's October 2 debate with Joe Biden, women's issues such as equal pay, domestic violence, and sexual assault prevention and treatment will figure as prominently in the dialogue as foreign policy. Hearing the woman on the Republican ticket defend John McCain's positions on these issues could potentially be a significant gamechanger.

In December 2006, Jews and non-Jews around the world watched as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held the now famous International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust in Tehran, Iran. Applauding in the audience was New York Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss (pictured at left with Ahmadinejad), whose parents were Hungarian Jewish immigrant holocaust survivors. He also spoke at the conference.

The presence and supportive participation of Weiss and other Jewish rabbis, scholars, and writers gave Ahmadinejad's conference legitimacy, blatantly implying, "You can't dismiss our argument now because we've got some of your guys on our side." For the Gotcha!-conservatives getting ready to pounce, the analogy here lies in the dynamic.

Yes, Palin is a little like Weiss here, and the legitimacy she gives to the conservatives' abysmal record on women's issues is dangerous. For a presidential candidate with that kind of record to hide behind a poster woman like Palin may be good political strategy, specially in a year where Hillary Clinton's candidacy shattered historical barriers for women. But it's unlikely to last long.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rocking the Paralympics

The 2008 Paralympics began Saturday, September 6 in Beijing, China. First staged in 1948 alongside the Olympic Games in London for injured war veterans, the Paralympics have now evolved into an official quadrennial event alongside the Olympics that is open to all athletes with physical and mental disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries to cerebral palsy.

On the occasion of this year's games, I want to share with you my brother Zameer's debut music video, Win or Defeat, below. In a recent interview with Ontario's Mississauga News, Zameer explained, "The goal of my video is to help drive home the message that everyone who works hard to pursue a dream is a star... At the end of it all, it doesn’t matter whether society deems you successful or not. It’s all up to you. This song is especially dedicated to people that don’t receive due recognition for following their dreams. We need to change our ideas of success. I don't understand why the Paralympic Games do not receive as much recognition and support as the Olympic Games, even though the athletes work just as hard and have the same ambitions."

The song is currently in rotation on Canada's MuchMoreMusic, and was produced by Grammy-winning producer Steve Thompson, who produced Blues Traveler's Four, Korn's Follow the Leader, and also mixed Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction, in addition to major records by Metallica and Soundgarden, among others.

The video is directed by Toronto director Marc Andre Debruyne, and features Canada's Paralympic sled hockey gold medalist Bradley Bowden, who was born with sacral agenesis.

The games end on September 17. To stream this year's Paralympics online, please visit I have posted a complete schedule of the coverage below.

Here's the video:

Live coverage on

Date, time (ET) Event
Sat 9/6 8am Opening ceremony
Sun 9/7 5am Swimming
Mon 9/8 5am Swimming
Tue 9/9 5am Track & field
Wed 9/10 5am Swimming
Thu 9/11 5am Swimming 830am Men’s basketball (USA vs. Australia)
Fri 9/12 5am Track & field 930am Women’s basketball (quarterfinal)
Sat 9/13 5am Track & field 10am Women’s basketball (semifinal)
Sun 9/14 5am Track & field 1030am Men’s basketball (semifinal)
Mon 9/15 5am Swimming 930am Women’s basketball (final)
Tue 9/16 8am Rugby (final)
Wed 9/17 8am Closing ceremony

Monday, September 1, 2008

Another Palin Pregnancy and James Dobson's Prayers

Sarah Palin announced today that her seventeen year old daughter Bristol is five months pregnant, will be keeping the baby, and marrying Levi, the baby's father. I'm not sure how the Christian right will respond to this, but it seems as if it's okay. The sin of fornication - is trumped by (i) not using birth control; and (ii) the decision to keep the baby. That's 2 to 1 in favor of God. It's unfortunate that the personal life of a teenage girl who desperately needs her privacy right now will be in the media spotlight and a political target, but this is not about judgment of the child, but the inconsistency of the parent, similar to Dick Cheney's support and participation in a blatantly anti-gay rights government despite his daughter's open lesbian relationship. Whether it's made a political issue or not, it will still play significantly in the minds of voters.

Either way, the Obama camp has refrained from attacking either mother or daughter on anything so far, and are focusing on McCain. In the spirit of staying above the fray, Obama has put out the following statement:

"I have said before and I will repeat again: People's families are off limits. And people's children are especially off-limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Gov. Palin's performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president. So I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories. You know my mother had me when she was 18 and how a family deals with issues and teenage children, that shouldn’t be a topic of our politics."

Second, evangelist James Dobson, chairman of the board of Focus on the Family (who recently let go about his reservations about John McCain and decided to embrace his candidacy after his choice of Sarah Pralin last week), backed Focus on the Family's Stuart Shepard as Shepard asked millions of evangelical Christians to pray for rain "of Biblical proportions" during Barack Obama's historic open air speech at Invesco Field in Denver last week. "I'm talking 'umbrella-ain't-going-to-help-you' rain," the pastor cried, standing in front of Invesco Field himself in a YouTube video.

As Hurricane Gustav continues to devastate the Gulf today, it seems as if God heard Shepard and James Dobson's prayers a few days too late. God seems instead to have gone after the Republican convention instead. Today, on the first day of the Republican National Convention, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have canceled their appearances and the McCain camp has been forced to make drastic adjustments to the tone and agenda of the convention.

I haven't been able to figure out yet whether this will be good for McCain or not. But it doesn't seem as if God has chosen McCain like he chose George W. Bush.